Thursday, January 14, 2010

Threadless--Marketing Success through Community

Isn’t it what we’d all like to achieve—having our customers do the work for us? We all know it’s not that easy, but t-shirt site Threadless has built a community that powers both product development and sales. Read about it in Chief Marketer’s new e-magazine.

It’s another of those edgy sites that got started almost by accident. They made a lot of mistakes in the early days, when it was described as a “crowdsourcing” model. Today they are careful to describe it as a “community” model, pointing out that crowdsourcing implies a random group of individuals while a community has to be carefully nurtured.

Threadless does that on its own site

on Facebook; this is the New Tees! page

on Twitter.

There are two things you notice immediately.

Ecommerce. Threadless is selling t-shirts on both Facebook and Twitter. Did you know you could do that? Facebook has a Marketplace although you pretty much have to know it exists in order to be able to find it. (Why doesn’t Facebook work on its navigation structure???), Steven Walling of ReadWriteWeb tried the Twitter version and he has issues with it—worth reading!

Privacy. Once again, there is none! I didn’t go as far as Steve Walling did on Twitter, but I did click on the box to find out what was required to sign in on Twitter. What I found was a box requesting permission for Twitter Tees to access my Twitter account. I don’t do that (at least I thought I didn’t). The permission box says you can revoke the permission by going to your Settings page. I looked at my Settings page; there are two apps there that I apparently have given permission to, neither of which I remembered—scary!

On Facebook I found two interesting issues. The more perplexing one is that I was on the New Tees! page yesterday. Today, when I went on again, I found a comment box with my account picture beside it beside every product; and no, I didn’t give either Facebook or Threadless any permissions. When I went to the Marketplace page I found a row of pictures across the bottom—Facebook friends of mine from around the world who are using Facebook Marketplace. They are all connected to me, so I guess that’s ok. I do have a bit of a problem with the fact that they captured my visit and, in effect, reported it publicly. However, I choose not to be upset; it’s what you should expect on Facebook.

So we are left with two questions; does Twitter offer the opportunity to create a stable e-commerce platform. You’ll have to stay tuned on that one. Second, are you comfortable—more important, will your customers be comfortable—with Facebook’s stated policy of linking everyone to everyone and everything? It goes back to my oft-repeated warning to be careful what you do and what you expect your customers to do.

Threadless has made a great business with their community-based model. I’d be willing to bet that their Facebook and Twitter sales account for only a small part of their total revenue. Customer engagement and customer acquisition are fundamental on the network platforms and sales are a by-product. That seems to describe the scene at present; it could change over time.

What should clearly grow, however, is the importance and value of a vibrant customer community. Cam Balzer said in Forbes recently:

The secret isn't growing a huge fan base. We have 100,000 Facebook fans, but those fans have all come to us organically. We believe the more organic the growth, the more loyal the fans, the more likely they will be repeat customers.

Amen to that—whichever platform you are talking about!

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